Ahmes and Angles - Egyptian Mathematics
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||Rhind Papyrus, British Museum, Central America, Nile River, Great Pyramid
Ahmes and Angles - Egyptian Mathematics
By Colleen Messina
1 In the 1850s, a man named Mr. Rhind bought an amazing papyrus manuscript. A scribe named Ahmes, the Moonborn, wrote the manuscript in 1575 B.C., and it contains most of what we now know about Egyptian mathematics. The manuscript describes the Egyptian number system, the Egyptian use of fractions to divide rations of bread and beer among the workers, and geometric calculations. The Rhind Papyrus hangs in the British Museum in London, and it is one of the oldest mathematical documents in the world. Although it is hard to pinpoint exact dates for ancient cultures, the Egyptians' civilization thrived from about 4000 B.C. to 500 B.C., and they made many strides in the development of mathematics.
2 Mathematics had come a long way since the hunters and gatherers first figured out the lunar cycle. The Egyptians developed a system of writing called hieroglyphics that used pictures to represent words and numbers, but they still had no zero in their numerical system. A papyrus leaf represented the number 1; bent-over papyrus leaf represented 10; a coiled rope represented 100; and the sacred lotus flower represented 1,000 (Egyptians believed that a god who appeared from a lotus created the world). Animals represented the larger Egyptian numbers; a snake represented 10,000, and a tadpole was the symbol for 100,000. A figure of a scribe represented the number 1 million, so the scribes were pleased! Repeating the symbols created larger numbers. For example, three coiled ropes meant 300.
3 Scribes like Ahmes learned to read and write, but many Egyptian children did not attend school. If the future scribes complained about school, they had to listen to a list of the problems that faced other professions. Metalworkers supposedly choked on smoke from the furnaces, and weavers had cramped places to work. School was challenging and the teachers were strict, but the young people had some fun learning about numbers through games. They learned how to use numbers for practical things, such as counting household goods, organizing soldiers in the army, and keeping track of taxes. They also learned calculations to help with farming.
4 Farming was one of the most important jobs in ancient Egypt because farmers had to produce food for everyone. Egyptian farmers needed a more precise calendar. At first, they still used the lunar calendar to plan their farming, but since this calendar had only 360 days (12 cycles of 30 days,) they had to add days to remain in harmony with the seasons. The Egyptians replaced their lunar calendar with the first solar calendar in approximately 2772 B.C. This calendar was 365 days long, the actual time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. Across the globe, in Central America, the Mayan civilization also developed a solar calendar.
5 Egyptian farmers had other challenges that led to better methods of measurement. Each year the Nile River flooded, leaving behind a stretch of fertile land where the Egyptians grew their crops of barley and emmer wheat. Therefore, each year the boundaries of the fields had to be accurately redrawn. Egyptian surveyors or "rope stretchers" used lengths of ropes with equally spaced knots tied in them to measure land boundaries. When two fields bordered one another, the rope stretchers had to measure a right angle to form the corners of the fields. The establishment of boundaries was also important because the area of the land determined the amount of taxes, and the scribes kept the accounts for taxation.
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